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11 Aug 2010

Onsite SEO Interview with Dave Harry

Dave Harry

I’m getting excited for tomorrow’s (August 12th) Vertical Measures Monthly Webinar centered around “Onsite SEO: Building a Solid Foundation for Your Website,” at 11:30 a.m. EST (8:30 a.m. PST, 10:30 a.m. CST). My co-workers James Constable (Link Strategy Specialist) and Jason Hendricks SEO (Link Acquisition Specialist) are sure to have some good insights and reveal some secrets that they’ve uncovered first hand. Speaking of folks with a lot of experience in SEO this week, I got to speak with Dave Harry of Reliable-SEO. You may also know him as the “The Gypsy” as he is known on twitter and from www.huomah.com.

Elise Redlin-Cook: Would you consider yourself a “coder/programmer”?

Dave Harry: That one is hard to say really. Compared to the more hard core folks, most certainly not. But I have been building sites for some 12 years now and do know my way around code. But nothing more than the average every day hack really.

Elise: So, what do you think of PageRank?

Dave: What do I ‘think’ of it? That’s a strange one to be certain. I ‘think’ that it is the driving force behind all of modern search. All of the major engines use it. There is no avoiding it. It is a pretty interesting idea that has evolved greatly over the years. It is the genesis for the link economy and the scourge and bain of pain behind the mess that is the web these days. On the other hand, I also believe it will become less important in the coming years. How’s that?

Elise: Haha, perfect! How about your thoughts on using XML sitemaps?

Dave: Great idea… especially with video (aka video site maps) and news. I also don’t believe one should be doing away with the ever-faithful HTML site maps, but given the adoption of the major engines, it makes sense to be using them these days.

Elise: So in your opinion what areas are currently the most important in organically ranking a site?

Dave: All of them. No, seriously. I am a bit on the anal side in that I want to nail ALL of the on-site elements and keep semantic and other rules in mind when it comes to link building even. I tend to leave nothing to chance and hit ‘em all. On-site TITLE and IA structures are likely the most important. But I wouldn’t count out semantic relevance factors either. At the end of the day, all things being equal off-site, the site that nails down the on-site elements wins.

Elise: Explain to me what META tags matter in today’s world.

Dave: Interesting question deserving of an unorthodox answer. The TITLE element is important for ranking, the DESCRIPTION element is important for CTR. That’s the stuff we all know already. What is more interesting is the rise of RDFa and microformats and even semantic mark-up for Facebook’s social graph goodies. In the very near future we should see these types of meta-data on the rise. It is an area not a lot of SEOs are looking at, but should be.

Elise: What kind of strategies do you normally implement for back links?

Dave: Content programs, plain and simple. We aren’t really big into (comment) spamming types of link building. We use a combination of content strategy, outreach, placement and syndication. Sure, now and again I might fill in the link profile with some foundational stuff (directories and article marketing etc.) but I tend to not really do much of that these days. Back in the old days, before social, it was much harder to get the content out there. But that is no longer the case and if anything, link building has become much easier. People often don’t seem to understand that it is really ‘link marketing’ more than it is ‘building’. We want to not only use it for simply getting links, but to also build authority and traffic…. yes, TRAFFIC. Something that seems foreign to a lot of SEOs these days.

Elise: So, what role does social media play today in an SEO strategy?

Dave: Much as we discussed already, it is massively important in the link marketing process. 25 x 25 twitter iconIt has given us unrivalled abilities to get our content out there like never before. That being said, one should also remember that it is about the secondary links. Social media is also huge in branding and authority building. Further down the scale it can be used for localization and citations as well. It should also be noted that the lines aren’t as blurred as many seem to think, something we covered in a recent episode of SEO Dojo Radio #4.

Elise: What are the main tools that you use in your SEO Site Audits?

Dave: My brain, my fingers and my keyboard. Seriously though, most of the work we do with audits is based on experience, not tools. That is another bone of contention for me in that far too many SEOs these days depend on their tools. Data is completely and utterly useless without the desire to find a given data set. The data doesn’t create the strategy, the strategy dictates what data you are after. Of the various tools we ‘regularly’ use in most cases are (Google/Bing) Webmaster Tools, Majestic (for link data) and a few custom ones we have. But once more, each situation is unique and for the most part our audits are done through the experience of the eye looking at the site. I don’t believe there is yet a tool that can replace it.

Elise: The Search Engine Optimization field has changed a great deal in the last couple of years. How does it differ from when you first began?

Dave: HA! Not sure about the ‘last couple of years’ in that it has been a constant evolution for me over the last 8+ years I have been at it. For me much has changed from the rise of anchor text (05 or so), the loss of value for things like meta-keywords, the incarnations of social (from forums to social media) as mentioned already and so much more. I even believe search engines have gotten much better at determining semantic relevance from an on-page perspective (which gave rise to phrase ratio’s over KW density concepts). Some of the most massive changes have been in the verticals… video, local, real time etc.. This is an area I have not seen SEOs very quick to catch onto. Just look at any SERP these days and you will likely see a LOT of differences in a universal SERP compared to the past days of the 10 blue links. Now we start to consider semantic meta data and well… things just keep on changing all the time. And what of implicit user feedback? Another area I believe will start to become more and more important over the coming years. 25 x 25 twitter iconSEO is dead? Puh-leeeaze…

Elise: What are the biggest obstacles that you face in getting clients and/or developers to execute your action plan?

Dave: Man, that’s probably the number one most frustrating aspect of performing SEO. I have solved it in two simple ways.

A. Be much more attentive during the sales process. In short, be sure to qualify your clients to ensure you are setting yourself up with the best chance to succeed. If the client is not going to take/implement the advice you give them, just walk. Or at very least be sure to spell out in contractual format that you are not entirely responsible for the results … and NEVER get into pay-for-performance.

B. Be a consultant. This is something I do more and more of these days. I do the research/reporting/planning and hand it over. Done…finished…out of there. This is one way that I have been able to alleviate the problem and frustration of seeing my hard work go down the crapper. Sad, but true.

I am pretty sure that’s not the angle you’re after… but it is the reality of the business. You really need to have clients that are on board and understand the SEO process… it can’t be an after-thought.

Elise: What advice would you give to those that are new to SEO and lack the knowledge, experience, and hindsight that you possess?

Dave: Earn information retrieval… plain and simple. I have long lamented that SEOs not understanding how search engines work is like a web developer that doesn’t know HTML. It is 2/3rds of the initialization; ‘Search Engine’. The more one learns to ‘think like an engineer’ the easier it becomes to understand where things are headed. Being able to future-proof one’s SEO so that it stands the test of time is paramount as far as I am concerned. It also enables you to logically sort out what is and isn’t of value. Even for R&D (testing); how can one test anything when they have no grasp of how search engines work?

What other advice? Much like the above; don’t learn SEO from blogs. You must take your knowledge of search engines and apply it to your ongoing testing and research. Blogs are great, I write on a few, this interview is going on one, but that is NOT where one’s strategy should come from.

Elise: What search marketing conference do you most enjoy attending? Speaking at?

Dave: None. I don’t go to them and have traditionally turned down offers to speak at them. I am a family man first and foremost and while my kids are at the precious age (8&10) that is the golden moments, I don’t really see/feel the need to go. That being said, I do run a weekly chat session at the SEO Dojo and have enjoyed the many great guests we’ve had on there. Having a strong network (which would be ultimate value of them for me) is invaluable. Sorry… no recommendations beyond that here.

Elise: How about recommending some relevant reading materials to newcomer in the field?

Sure can… anything on these lists;

SEO Higher Learning

My Big Ass List of SEO Blogs

Or even Garrett French’s ebook (for link building)

At the end of the day the problem with a lot of tech books is that the information get’s outdated pretty damned fast. So I’d probably recommend joining a community such as Aaron Wall’s SEO Book gang and of course our own SEO Dojo. There are plenty of reading materials in those and forums to ask questions/further your knowledge. I’d also likely recommend taking in some as well…for the networking more than the sessions.

Elise: What inspired you to go into Search Engine Optimization? Did you follow a specific path into this field?

Dave: I sure did… hehe… I started a web design/development company back in 1998 and had been on the outside fringes when clients started to ask us about it. Then in about 2002 I decided it wasn’t great on my relationship to be working side-by-side with my wife and went into SEO full time. She still manages the original company and I am pretty sure our life is better for it.

Once I got into it though, I was just your average hack until I began to get geeky into IR patents and papers… The real turning point was likely through folks like Bill Slawski which was a watershed moment. There is simply nothing more fascinating in this world to me than the challenge of indexing and making meaningful sense of the world’s information. I don’t do PPC, I don’t do social… I am an organic search geek through-and-through.

Elise: Do you have any exciting projects that your involved in right now that you’d like to discuss?

Dave: Not really… we have a whack of those pesky NDAs which precludes me from talking about what we’re working on these days. I will say we have some interesting challenges we’re involved in and that’s what keeps me going. Beyond that, we have the aforementioned ‘SEO Dojo’ which is a growing community of SEO geeks (and webmasters) that was launched in late 2009. The best and most surprising part is that I am probably learning more than I am teaching… it has been a GREAT experience for me so far.

Elise: What made you decide to get involved in training SEO?

Dave: The total mass of complete GARBAGE that is out in the space. I was in the martial arts for more than 20yrs and one of the more important parts of that world is passing along the art. I decided long ago to try and do my part in helping to evolve the industry. Originally that was via blogging, more recently with the SEO Dojo. Nothing is more frustrating than to have clients asking questions (of ignorance) gleaned from some blogger or listening to the crap being spouted on the various forums in the SEO world. Instead of just ignoring it, I decided to be part of the solution.

That being said, there are many days when the sheer weight of it all makes me want to just pack it in and work for my own means. It can be a very thankless job out in the public eye and frustrating far beyond the benefits. I have been trying to ‘do my part’ for some 5 years now and how much longer I can take it, remains to be seen. Hopefully some of the newer generation will pick up the torch soon and I can fade back into anonymity.

Elise: Are you driven by any great passions outside of the business arena?

Dave: Oh you betcha’. Did I mention my family? Oh yes, I did… well, they are always first and foremost. Much of my present world enables me to spend lots of time with them and I do enjoy my summers together with the fam’. I am also an avid musician these days and manage to spend time playing around town and at gatherings. I started that back some 30yrs ago. As for the martial arts, not so much anymore, the tired ol body just doesn’t hold up for that as it used to.

25 x 25 twitter iconAnd ultimately, learning is a passion. I don’t read fiction. I don’t watch reality TV. Most of my off-time is spent as a sponge sucking up more of the world’s endless information.

3 Comments

  • SEO Services Aug 12, 2010

    Really, very good interview. I am agree with Dave that we use a combination of content strategy .
    It is fact that social media is playing important role in seo.

  • Heinrich Aug 12, 2010

    Brilliant interview and fascinating insights into the SEO world of a real professional. The answers are full of useful guidelines and I found this post to be very motivating. Thanks!